Franz Wright on the Love and Failures of Language
In Conversation with Sarah Messer
Poet, nonfiction writer, and translator, Sarah Messer, is the author of four books. She co-founded One Pause Poetry, a reading series and online poetry archive, in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2010. She now teaches Creative Writing at the Residential College at the University of Michigan. Over the past ten years, One Pause has brought more than 65 poets for free readings to various locations around Ann Arbor including art galleries, a flower shop, bookstores, and a working industrial metal studio.
Poet Franz Wright sat down with Sarah for this interview the morning after his reading at White Lotus Farms, an organic farm, bakery, and creamery, seven miles west of Ann Arbor. For these conversations, Sarah asks the same 10 questions to each poet interviewed, in hopes of seeing what they share and where they differ in their views on poetry and process. As the newly appointed content editor for One Pause, I stumbled across a roughly transcribed version of their interview in the archives. You can find most of the readings and conversations from the series’ ten years here.
–Sebastien Butler, One Pause Poetry Content Editor
SM: Thank you for coming. We’re just going to talk to Franz today, and I have a series of questions. They’re really general—
Wright: My favorite.
SM:—so if we don’t keep to the topic, that’s fine. The first question is: what does it mean to make a poem?
Wright: Oh, I thought a lot about that recently. It seems to have become very simple to me recently. For me, it’s simply a place, an improved actual place to go to, to walk around inside. And I experienced this from very early in childhood, even maybe before writing. But then, when writing started, it gave it a very concrete form—this strange world. Very early, I had the sense of language as being a literal place or somehow doubling everything. If the infinite can be doubled, which it can’t. It’s an impossible mathematical proposition, but that’s what it does. Language doubles the infinite. And then Rilke comes, and he believes that for literally every phenomena in the external world, there is a corresponding inner phenomenon. But what he means is language. That there wouldn’t be any inner life without language, there wouldn’t be any thought.
For me, at first, it was a shield against the world. You know that line by Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Bearing my chalice safely through a crowd of foes?” It was a shield, and it also enriched everything. It made everything twice as good. It did both. It did everything. To me, it was always associated, almost, with the sense of being in love; it was an identical sense. So I always responded to that image in Wallace Stevens about the inner paramour. There’s other forms, like in Kibir—the inner friend. And there’s St. John’s prosody. There’s this person that we could be—that we want to fall in love with and be with and we can never find it. Maybe some people do. I’d like to meet one. I’ll shake hands. But to me, it was like Hart Crane said, I was promised an improved infancy. It was an improved reality and a place. Mark Rothko said the exact same thing—he’d sit in front of a painting for hours—one of those brilliant, late paintings. It’s a place for me to go.
SM: Great. Thank you. This is the second question: what is the role of beauty in a poem?
Wright: These are general questions! Beauty! You’d have to ask an old question, wouldn’t you? What’s beautiful? How do you define beauty? Best way I ever saw was Sappho—“Some people say, like, a herd of black horses running across the plain. Some say a flotilla of warships heading out from port are beautiful. I say whatever one loves is beautiful.” Whatever you love, that’s what’s beautiful. You have certain special and private places, and ideal places, you keep inside you, memories of times when, the way you’re constantly in childhood, having experienced the feeling like you’re just about to see through to the way things really should be. It’s real evident right away that they’re not. But you can still see how they should be, and you still feel it’s unfair that they’re not. That may be part of it. I don’t think it’s just puberty. That thing where that light goes out of children’s faces when they’re like eleven or something—it’s the saddest thing in the world. That may be part of it.“I would do anything to escape from writing and I couldn’t. Wherever I found myself, it was waiting for me, usually on the back of a matchbook in a bar or something.”
SM: Here’s the third general question. Well, this is a little more specific. How do sound and vision intersect in your poems when you are writing them?
Wright: Oh yeah. Those are very fundamental for me. I mean it just wouldn’t be going on at all without something like that. I mean it’s one of the few major things that happen that keep you obsessed with it. And one of them is the musical quality. If you have that in your body—we’re talking about being wired in bad ways. Wired in good ways too. My father listened to Ted Mann. It’s funny. Sometimes, people can come from very uneducated, very working class backgrounds. My father had become obsessively learned. He was so enraptured with classical music. And he would make me sit and listen to it. You want to do other things when you’re a little boy than sit and listen to: “Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears do scald like molten lead.” Like you want to get down on your knees. I did once. I crawled out of the room on my hands and knees. And he didn’t even hardly notice.
I grew up with hearing all that music. I tried to be a musician. And music is—I think poetry is a lot closer to music than it is to poetry. It’s so mathematical, very much more like music. Both it is an object, stands still in time like an object, a painted visual object. It’s an object, I think, on a page. And at the same time, it flows in time if you read it. It will take a certain number of seconds to read. Like a piece of music, it has beats and rhythms. Spoken poetry was inconceivable to people until quite recently. The Elizabethans, after that maybe. It’s like if Bob Dylan got up and just said the lyrics of the song and didn’t sing. They sang. They were called lyric poems, because they were sung. They’re the lyrics of songs. Like the Iliad was sung.
SM: What was the first poem you ever wrote, and what were the circumstances?
Wright: I don’t know. I was really wounded and the next thing I knew I woke up. All I know I was staying up in this place in Northern California I used to go as a teenager. A very powerful feeling. You’re drawn to get up, just ecstasy that you feel sometimes at that age when walking in the morning. And I feel I may never feel again. But that’s not true. I do. Just talking about it, I can feel it again. And just the impulse to sing like this, to find some way of responding. You know, with poetry you’re really close. You’re never far from the most ancient impulses in human beings, which are to like—to say something back or something to the universe—so much awe of it. You have to say something back and in some thought, one way or another. Whitman said, “How could I survive the sunrise if I did not always constantly send sunrise out of me.” See, by the time I finish trying to answer, I forget what you’ve asked me.
SM: It was: what was the first poem?
Wright: Well, then I went on and wrote this. It had seven lines. I can almost remember it word for word and if anybody were ever to see it, I’d have to kill them. But I thought it was, man, I thought it was—pff!
SM: How old were you?
Wright: Fifteen. That kept me going for four or five years. I believed that I was gonna have that experience again. I didn’t have it, but I believed I would again. It was too real. I knew it couldn’t be an illusion. And it took me another five years before I wrote something I felt was a poem. I remember I was about nineteen. I finally wrote something, one day in college, Oberlin, after many misadventures in between and whatnot. I remember the very first time that I wrote something and it was a poem. I went, “Shit!” I went over to my teacher’s house. “I did it! I did it!” But I didn’t know how. I knew I’d done it, but I didn’t know how I did it. It took another fifteen years to figure out. It was just a start.
SM: Can you talk about translation…how you feel about it?
Wright: Joy. It starts out as being a way to read a poem in another language more closely, if you’re fortunate enough to have the language the poem is in. It’s the very closest to dismantling a little watch or engine, or something, and putting it back together to find out how it’s made. I can imagine no better way for someone sitting alone in a room trying to figure out what we’re talking about: a poem. It’s wonderful because you know that there’s going to be a solution at the end; you just have to get there. It reminds me of geometries. It’s beautiful, like you just have to get there. But it’s a great, great way to apply your love, to experience it as closely as possible. And you have a natural impulse to want to translate it after a while. I believe only certain poems can be translated. No! Translation’s impossible. It’s totally chaotic—in the first place to do it. But we’re glad that certain people do it and very not glad that other people do it. It grieves me, for example, that generations of people believe Steven Mitchell’s Rilke is what Rilke sounds like, and that causes me physical and terrible pain. It really does.
Audience Member: Can I just follow up, considering that the first work of yours I knew were the translations of René Char. And I’m just kinda curious what drew you to René Char back then.
Wright: Well, that was the weird story. I’d come up against poets like Hart Crane. He is the one that comes to mind where I felt like I was learning to read all over again. There is literally a night when I suddenly could read him, like the moment when you’re a child when you suddenly can read. I was looking for higher levels of that. And Char was really the highest sort of level, of lyrical absolute language, more than Mallarmé. He seemed simple minded to me. Char is like Rimbaud as an adult. He derives very, very much from Rimbaud, but he’s an adult! He’s an adult Rimbaud! It’s irresistible, and he’s so charming. But it’s the same thing—I don’t really know French, and I go get friends who are fluent.
As Ezra Pound said, get someone who’s fluent and get a poet and put them together. It’s one very good message for translation. It’s an excellent one. One I’ve taken part in, which works very well and is very exciting. And in the end you don’t harm the original just because you tried to do some botched version of it of your own in your own language. The original is still there. Ah, it’s great. It’s a wonderful joy to translate.
SM: Okay, talk about frustration, a time when you experienced a failure of language.
Wright: That sounds like about the first forty years of my life. No, I’d say till my late forties I would have described myself as feeling perpetual. No, I had my moments, but it had become a total suicide mission by that point. But it was so hopeless, everything was so hopeless in my life. I don’t quite understand. Some miraculous things happened that I don’t understand that got me through that. But there’s this. All my life I thought about this line in Rilke’s prose somewhere where it says: “The poem is the result of having been in terrible danger.” And there’s no other way for me to describe having this ecstatic sort of triumph, overcoming. It’s the way I’ve always experienced it, and I’ve never been able to quit. I always had to keep going. My big message—Jacob and the angel, wrestling the angel. “I will not let you go until you bless me!” That’s my faith.
SM: Okay this is taking a different direction. What advice would you give high school students who want to write poetry?
Wright: I think that if people understand that they just have a love of language, like the way I like paintings or something. I don’t have to be like a painter or fanatically—it’s my life, my breath. It’s wonderful that people have always had a love of poetry. It was very popular, and in many cultures it’s very popular, a wildly popular art form still. Except in certain crude, hapless, former first world countries. There are places in the world where there’s a great prestige saying I’m a poet. In saying it here it’s like saying… never mind, I can’t find a polite way to put it, so I’m just not going to say it.
SM: So your advice would just be, to them, just to love it, read it?
Wright: Well, you just tell them to go read what everybody—tell them to read the famous, the old. Old Aunt Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet. It turns out to be he means it. He said, “If you can ask yourself, will I die if I don’t do this and my soul dies,” then you better do it! And if you can’t say that, then better not do it. That’s all. I think it’s that radical. Doesn’t mean you can’t love it. Loving it is a gift in itself, to have a love for poetry. My god, just to love to read is such a gift already. God, how wonderful it would be just to read and not have to write. It ruins writing. It ruins reading! It does, it ruins reading completely.
SM: So, here’s a pretty specific question. I know you know these famous lines by Adorno—“To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and then Jerome Rothenberg said back—“After Auschwitz, there is only poetry.”
Wright: Yeah, that’s an old argument that’s been argued for so long, and it should be. And it always will be, and always has been in some way. It’s the question of our higher selves and our lower selves. And can we live like this in this higher world that we can imagine? And there have been periods in history when people have lived up to that for brief periods of time.
SM: Is there anything poetry can’t approach?
Wright: I think that real art in whatever form it takes—if we use a general term then poetry is often used to embody poesis—means to make, create. And you can’t repress that impulse in human beings any more than you can the impulse to live. If we don’t have this joy going through us, then we’d all kill ourselves. To realize you are a conscious being, that your nature becomes conscious of itself. And to be the first person to realize these things, it’s terrible. It’s staggering. We have this terrible need to reconnect to that feeling we are here for some awesome, illustrious purpose. Not just to be a slave and to just exist. Corny as it sounds, that’s a lot of what writing poetry is trying to be about or any art. I always come across as so pedantic, I really mean it. You don’t have to be a master at it, just it can be something you like. And you don’t have to be this monomania, like nothing else, matters in your life.
That would happen to me. I mean it just literally would be the only place, the only thing I had, and that’s crazy. I always had everything backwards, and I thought if I suffered enough then I would have earned a poem or something. It’s absurd. If I fix myself and if I was happy, then I would write something. It’s real, heavy duty realizations like that when you’re fifty years old. I’ve come to love being alone. I’ve come to love writing. I would do anything to escape from writing and I couldn’t. Wherever I found myself, it was waiting for me, usually on the back of a matchbook in a bar or something. My friend, Charles Simic, who is like my mentor or something. I started writing to him when I was nineteen, and I used to go visit him. “Your major ambition is to write an epic on the back of a matchbook.” That was weird, because my father used to say about Robert Bly, “His main ambition is to turn the Iliad into a haiku.”
SM: So, the next question is just about your work.
Wright: That’s not work, that’s fun.
SM: Okay, your poetry, what’s the future? What’s going on next?
Wright: God, I mean, didn’t I do enough?
SM: Maybe that’s the answer.
Wright: I feel like that sometimes. Haven’t I done enough for Christ’s sake! It’s like, I just have this book, and I’m never gonna write a better book than this. You reach a peak. I don’t know, I wrote two more after that. One’s done, another one’s almost finished. The next one after this will be of interest. I brought it. I could read something from it if you want…
SM: That’d be great.
Wright: I’m very happy about it, mainly because of its title: F. I cannot tell you how happy it makes me. It will make me smile on my deathbed, the thought of people walking around by the Coop, or somewhere, or the Harvard Book Store, and see this F. F is a very potent letter in our learning. It’s just a pun, because I always sign my name that way and my friends all know me by that. But it means other things too, doesn’t it? It’s also like fuck you. It says all kinds of things that go through your mind sort of kaleidoscopically. I like that idea. Isn’t that what a good image should do? [F.]’s the most structured. I’ve tried to do this before, but failed. No, I tried it a couple of times. It worked out, it didn’t work out that well. Nothing I do works out that well, but I have my moments. This one I think really has a better symmetry. It has four sections. Mary Ella Griffer, who is nearby at Grosse Pointe has done some beautiful chapbooks of mine. That’s one section of this book. One night I wrote this one sentence, it’s called “Spell”:
“Some fish for words from shore while others, lacking in such contemplative tact, like to go wading in up to their chins through a torrent of bone-chilling diamond, knife raised, to freeze-frame incarnadine and then bid it as with hermetic wand flow on again, ferociously, translucently, name writ in river.”
That would be what I learned to call the lyrical absolute. That’s the place where language goes off into being meanings, into being just music. And then whatever it randomly says at the same time, which turns out to be really strange sometimes.
I’ll read you the haibuns. I just loved it. [Basho’s] one of those people in literature that are not literary at all and are more like friends. You feel like you hear the way they spoke, the way you know a friend’s tone of voice and how they speak. The gospels have some of that quality. There’s that sense of a real person speaking, a personality. And his is so adorable, and the humility is so real; and humility is the infinite power for an artist. Anyway, I discovered this one form, Haibun. The wonderful simple idea of writing a little prose diary entry, or journal entry, about the context of the poem and how it came into being as he wrote this poem, and then he just presents the poem. He already raised the haiku out of a sort of party game thing that was existing into a high level of art, so shockingly high that it is almost the equivalent of Shakespeare. Well, he says in this one, in this haibun by Basho from 1692:
“I am acquainted with a Kyoto monk by the name of Unchiku who once did a painting. Maybe it was a self-portrait. I don’t know. It showed a monk with his face turned away. He asked me if I would write something on it, so I set down these words: You are more than sixty years old and I am almost fifty. We are both shadows in a dream.”
Pindar uses the same image somewhere in a title—a shadow in a dream.
“The same dream maybe.Then as if talking in my sleep, I added my poem: Turn and look back at me. I am so lonely, cold fall night.”
The second one is:
“As the chill rain of early winter began falling desolately over everything, I sought warmth and company at a roadside inn. Allowed to dry my soaked clothes by the fire, I was further comforted for a time by the innkeeper who tactfully listened to me relate some of the troubles I encountered on the road. Suddenly, it was evening. I sat down under a lamp, taking great care with them as I produced my ink and brushes, and began to write. Recognizing my work, he solemnly requested that I consider composing a poem in honor of our brief meeting in this world: At an inn I am asked for identification. Traveler, let that be my name. The first winter rain.”
The last one is:
“Wherever I travel, wherever I happen to find myself, I am not from there. In fact, the whole world is just such a place to me. I have spent the past six or seven months on the road, a nocturnal traveler who has survived, so far, many devastating illnesses as I made my way onward. I found the more alien I came to see myself, the more I missed beloved faces, lifelong friends and aging students, until my steps were drawn irresistibly back toward the outskirts of Edo. And sure enough, day after day, they appeared, coming to sit in the small hut of a poor man and talk to me. I had nothing to offer in return except my poem. I am still alive, but why? Silvery grass that withers at the touch of the snow.”
That will have to be put on the list of never-read-them-in-public poems. I would read certain poems, and I’d start to realize, oh fuck, I might have to stop and do that thing men do, because they think they’ll die if they cry. And it’s horrible, like I’m going to have to strangle myself to do that. It’s second only to the shame of failing to live longer than everyone you know.
I’ll just read one other one to show you. This is a prose thing. We all know, when you spend time in bars, there’s certain perennial things like last call for alcohol. I have a prose piece called “You Don’t Have to Go On but You Can’t Stay Here”:
Within my heart is a bright ceilingless place, and I have been there. Evening or dawn, first stars or last, I couldn’t tell you. Hidden path through the forest. My height which gives way between one step and the next to the dunes.—
I was thinking of Cod, [Cape Cod] out on the cape, Provincetown—
It’s coming back to me—endless identical dunes in their muted other planetary light. I turn around, the trees are gone. This is where it begins. It’s the same every time. Mirror, Mirror in the mirror, now who’s living with a gun to his head? Endless hallway of doors without numbers, without door knobs, without men. What can you do but keep walking toward the distant pinpoint of light, praying that it doesn’t go out where the blood dyed thread proved too short? May silver scissors sleep. I am so tired, and I don’t know why. I can’t go back. I would never make it. Besides, there is no time. I am late, unforgivably late for the wedding. The rhyme of the one who has actually been there but cannot remember a thing, and the one who vividly remembers a place he has never been. Late for the kiss to kill the woods owl come home at last. The embrace of two people on opposite shores of the oceans. Of things as they should be divided by things as they are. And talk about being at the right place at the right time. I have always been there. It’s going to end now. No matter how cunning the route, how agile the evasive maneuver. Bang! And so what, so what if there’s nothing left of me but this shattered, raised facsimile of the person who continues even now to go by my name. I made it. That is the one thing I will not be denied. And I urge you to give this some talk. You have a mind until you use it.
That’s a play on a beautiful line by my friend, C.D. Wright’s great, great, great new book. One with Others. And a woman says, “You have a life until you use it.”
“At this point, I can barely string together two coherent thoughts or get my shirt buttons in the right holes, but I am still here, aren’t I? I ask if I am here, therefore I am here! Or, there is no one to ask. It’s very important, I know. I feel I am at present at the hour I was born for, destination and origin in one. This is the part where I am supposed to wake up, and I do not wake up. Sudden wind to the leaves that aren’t there. The very air turning greener from one instance to the next and an absolute stillness, even the birds silenced, the birds who aren’t there with their eyes closed, and night comes in broad daylight. For the father is coming and that he is an American is not something we can simply assume anymore. The tiger, the whirlwind, the unanswering sky as well as the caryatid who has fallen beneath its stone for good. He lays me out of sleep and plunging his hand in my flesh as in mercury, as in melted down mirror, he pulls the heart from its socket; and truly it has been hurting me most of my life. A new heart is set in its place, incorruptible. Heart of the one with no name, or a new name, one so conspicuously alien I’m afraid it is bound to cause no end of strife, especially at recess at the school for vicious, young primates prematurely preoccupied as unpremeditated ejaculation. By now, the wound in my chest is healing over like water into which a large stone has been dropped, still silver water, or wide wind blown water with shimmering path, beginning and ending at his feet; love itself or love unreturned. Stars’ progenitor. Also the towering braggart who has stopped a broken jolt to win a bet with the devil. Meanwhile, Abraham, knife raised, is let off the hook at the last minute and later on, my mysterious lord sends his own child to slaughter. Now there’s a book I keep meaning to read again cover to cover the way I did as a boy. If I can only get out of bed, if only I could break this restraint switch after all aren’t really there. This is where I can always be found, I regret to say, repeating from beginning to end the terrific reasons for being alive. And it’s getting us nowhere. How ‘bout a story? There once was a man who dreamed he walked to heaven and bending down to pick a tiny eye-blue flower from the grass, he awoke to find himself holding that flower in his hand. I think I know just how he felt. Only now I appear to be moving. I am flying at incalculable speeds, which continue increasing until finally there is no sensation of motion at all. I am travelling away from my body in a widening ring.”
That’s from, of course, Samuel Taylor Coledridge’s wonderful little passage in his journal. “What if a man were to pass through paradise in a dream? And as a token that he had actually been there, been given a blue flower that when he woke, he found he was holding in his hands. What then? Aye, what then?”
SM: Thank you. There is one more question. So, last night we were talking about Ikkyu, whose name means “one pause.” At his time period in Japan, 15th century, everybody read poetry and knew poetry, and you really weren’t considered a human being if you did not.
Wright: Right, it was more popular, but then we have to remember that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s at its peak when it’s very popular.
SM: That’s interesting, because the question I had was what could we do now to make that more the case in America, but maybe you’re saying…
Wright: I don’t know the answer to this, because I know there are cultures in which poetry, as I said, has great prestige. And there are cultures to say you’re a poet is almost to admit to some sort of felony, like ours. I used to think the Russians always had it over on us, because they killed all their poets, but we don’t do that here. We found a much better way to silence them. It’s so cunning. It’s beautiful. You can say anything you fucking please, and we just won’t pay attention, and we’ll just starve you to death. You got Russia, you say something and they listen, and they kill you. So, I don’t know, which is the better place to be? I always thought it would be wonderful to be a Catholic in China. There’s something racist about that desire, I know. But I have this fantasy. Things like that, being in a real situation where it’s a danger, where your love is purified by the fact that you put your life at risk.
I was always conscious of being willing to do that for writing, and it took me so long to not to distinguish between writing and religion. It’s so stupid! But there is something that is religious. Whatever word we use. Some religions, I use the term really loosely. It could even mean psychological things. I felt always—it’s not something I’m bragging about, it’s something that absolutely horrifies me really. But I was quite conscious many times that I was not gonna do anything else. I was gonna die. I was dead serious and used that concept in my life. And they work real good, too. Something takes care of us.
SM: That’s it. Thank you.
Wright: Man, aren’t I articulate? I never realized that because I’m alone all the time. I just talk to myself and grunt.
Franz Wright earned a BA from Oberlin College in 1977. Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Whiting Fellowship, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His poetry collections include The Beforelife (2001), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (2004), God’s Silence (2006), Wheeling Motel (2009), Kindertotenwald (2011), and F (2013). His translation work includes poetry by Rene Char and Rainer Maria Rilke, among many others.
One Pause Poetry is a non-academic and non–market-driven poetry nonprofit aimed at honoring diversity and quality in our selection process and support of Michigan poets. One Pause selects both established and emerging writers for our series and website, with the goal of breaking down categories and camps, and encouraging collaboration and innovation across poetic forms, the arts, and media. One Pause Poetry was founded in 2010. This interview was transcribed by Jamie La Londe-Pinkston and edited by Sebastien Butler.